Thoughts on the so-called "Hypocrisy of Hanukkah"

This week, The New York Times ran an editorial by Michael David Lukas entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.”  

Mr. Lukas is a novelist and the father of a three-year-old who recently asked him the question he claims is the one “that Jewish parents instinctively dread”: “Dada, can we celebrate Christmas.”

The seeming inadequacy of Hanukkah in comparison to Christmas led him to the discovery that Hanukkah, in fact, celebrates the victory of a band of fundamentalist Jews over their Hellenizing neighbors.  The hypocrisy of Hanukkah, as Mr. Lukas sees it, is that “our assimilationist answer to Christmas is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.” As Mr. Lukas considers himself a considerably assimilated Jew, part of him “wants to skip out on Hanukkah altogether.”  Instead, in the face of his daughter’s desire for Santa, he says he is “going to embrace Hanukkah in all its contradictions.”

The idea that Hanukkah can serve as a substitute for Christmas is relatively new in Jewish history - one that could only arise when Jews were liberated from the ghetto and allowed to live freely among gentiles.  It’s based on the notion that Judaism needs to compete with Christianity, and that it must do so in the arena of commercialization. The reason why Jews like Mr. Lukas dread their child asking them if they can celebrate Christmas is because they knows instinctively that this is a fight Hanukkah cannot win.  Hanukkah is a minor holiday celebrated with lights and symbolic foods. It isn’t even Judaism’s gift giving holiday. That honor rightly goes to Purim. But a famous story about the proper way to celebrate Hanukkah points us toward the arena in which Judaism can compete with Christianity. And indeed, if we allow Judaism to compete in that arena, we will see no need to raise Hanukkah into something that it isn’t, nor find ourselves troubled by its contradictions.

The story is actually that of the makhloket - the disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel on how to light the Hanukkah menorah.   Fascinatingly, this particular makhloket is one nested in among several makhlokot which themselves prove the delight Jews take in controversy and contradiction.  As many of you know, Beit Shammai insists that the proper way to light the Hanukkah menorah is with eight lights on the first night, seven on the second, and so forth.  Beit Hillel insists its the other way round, and as you know, the halakha, that is, the law, almost always follows the teachings of Beit Hillel.  But within this makhloket is yet another, as to the reasoning of each ruling.  One reason given for Beit Hillel insisting that we keep adding lights throughout the week is that is that we increase sanctity, we do not diminish it.  Beit Shammai’s reasoning, however, is a little more obscure.  They say that the lights follow the פרי החג - the bulls of the festival.  

Now, I have to admit that when I first studied this section of the Talmud, I had no idea what Beit Shammai was talking about. I spent hours poring over every Talmudic dictionary I owned trying to figure out if the phrase פרי החג could mean anything other than “bulls of the festival” which struck me as a an inexplicable non-sequitur.   But my teacher was a patient man and he wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get the reference. That reference is to the book of Numbers, Chapter 29, which details the daily sacrifices offered in the Temple on Sukkoth. There we are commanded to offer 13 bulls on the first day of the festival, 12 on the second day, 11 on the third and so forth.  

What Beit Shammai is telling us is that Hanukkah was for the Maccabees their substitute for Sukkoth which they were unable to observe because the Temple had been profaned.  The number of lights decreases as the number of bulls decreases.

Unlike Hanukkah, Sukkoth is a major festival in Judaism.  It, along with Pesach and Shavuot, is one of the שלוש רגלים - the three legs on which the Jewish year stands.  Unfortunately, its observance among American Jews has declined in direct proportion to Hanukkah’s rise. This is a tragedy.

My family started observing Sukkoth when our children were very young.  Yet both my kids well remember that first sukkah which I made out of tarps, PVC pipe and duct tape.  It fell down on us that first night with the first light breeze. The next year’s sukkah was made of wood and the following year it doubled to its current 16 X 16 size.  

Sukkoth for us is a week of entertaining and enjoying friends and family.  But for my kids, it is so much more. Ask my daughter Sarah to define the festival and she will tell you that Sukkoth is “let’s build a fort in the back yard and live in it for a week.”  It is, quite simply, a child’s dream come true. And it is something they have that that makes their Jewish identity unique and precious.

I never remember my kids asking me the question that Mr. Lukas so dreads: “Dada, can we celebrate Christmas.”  They never asked it because to them, the Jewish alternative to Christmas was never Hanukkah. It was always Sukkoth.  And no jolly elf, no sparkling tree, no pile of presents could compete with that.

If there is a hypocrisy to Hanukkah, as Mr. Lukas seems to think there is, it doesn’t come from the holiday itself which makes no claims beyond the celebration of a miraculous deliverance.  It comes rather from Jews who try to make it into something it isn’t and cannot be. If we want our children to love being Jewish, we must give them their faith on its own terms. In its own rhythms and celebrations will be found a richness and sustenance that takes second place to no other faith.


Bruce Alpert